Being poor in 21st-century America, the cruelest of all the so-called western democracies, is a struggle for survival straight out of Charles Dickens (minus the hope of rescue by a kind and moral wealthy benefactor). It may soon become much worse, after the Republican-controlled Congress moved Wednesday to allow states to force recipients of unemployment insurance to submit to drug testing before receiving a dime.
Republicans are using a parliamentarian trick called the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to gut a series of Obama-era regulations they don’t like. Cooked up by Newt Gingrich’s Congress in 1996, the CRA allows Congress to undo recently-passed federal rules by a majority vote, so long as the undoing is also approved by the president.
Like voting rights (another bugaboo for Republicans currently in their crosshairs), food stamps and unemployment insurance programs are managed by the states but are subject to some federal regulation. Last year, the Department of Labor ruled that states could only force holders of certain jobs—mostly workers in positions where there is a “public safety concern,” like police officers or bus drivers—to submit to drug-testing before receiving unemployment benefits.
This didn’t sit well with such friends-of-the-people as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the same Scott Walker responsible for dismantling workers’ rights by severely limiting the abilities of unions to bargain for benefits.
In December, Walker wrote a letter to President Donald Trump, begging for the labor rule to be struck down so that poor people could be denied food stamps as well as unemployment benefits for failing a drug test, as Wispolitics.com reported.
States can’t start checking the pee of poor folk until the Senate also votes to overturn the rule, but the Republican majority there means the Valentine’s Day promise made by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is on its way to fulfillment.
Begun in the 1930s, unemployment insurance allows most people who recently lost a job to receive a fraction of their former paycheck for about six months, paid for by taxes on the employer. Since unemployment recipients have to be ready for work at any time to receive benefits, and about half of all employers drug test prospective employees, the argument is that anyone who would fail a drug test isn’t technically ready for work. (Never mind the arguments that drug testing is a selectively applied invasion of privacy.)
“People who are abusing drugs may fail job-related drug tests, meaning they are not truly available for employment,” McCarthy wrote in a blog post on Tuesday. “And when drug addicts continue to abuse drugs and fail to seek help to end their addiction, states should have the option of disallowing them for unemployment benefits and ending public support for their self-destructive habits.”
Giving unemployment insurance only to those who stay clean provides a great incentive to stop using drugs https://t.co/jkHvewqkTZ 3/3
— Kevin McCarthy (@GOPLeader) February 14, 2017
McCarthy pointed to a drug-testing program recently begun in Utah as proof that tests work. There, denying benefits to unemployed people who tested positive for drugs saved the state $350,000, or less than one half of one percent of the state’s $671 million budget.
Civil rights advocates including the NAACP and ACLU and major unions are outraged.
“It’s shameful that Congress would demonize people who use drugs, especially when there has been so much recent rhetoric about helping people who struggle with opioid and other forms of addiction,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance. “The reality is that people who receive public assistance are no more likely to use illicit drugs than the general population, and these kinds of drug testing programs are a big waste of tax dollars for states to run and defend in court.”
The irony is that poor people in Trump country stand the most to lose.
Choosing whether to test is left up to the states. It’s highly unlikely blue states like California, Illinois and New York will start drug testing at unemployment offices.
The opiate epidemic has hit economically moribund areas in the Rust Belt particularly hard. States like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan have all been ravaged by the return of heroin in the wake of a flood of prescription opiates—and opiate-ravaged areas in these states, all of which went for Trump, showed some of the strongest support for the president.
Benefits drug-testing is only the latest in a series of retrograde drug-war era moves seemingly lifted straight from the Reagan era or before—and the latest sign that the machinery of state has been hijacked by staunch drug warriors, pursuing the same policies that have led to mass incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders.
Last week, Trump asserted, without any supporting data or evidence, that most crime in America is drug-related. Days later, newly minted Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new “war” on drug cartels.
McCarthy, the architect of widespread draconian drug-testing, is a known foe of drug-policy reform like marijuana legalization and is an avowed advocate of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” approach to drug enforcement.
“People who abuse illegal drugs often lead dangerous lives filled with health problems, criminal activity and hopelessness,” he said in 2005.
Health problems, crime, and hopelessness are also the plight of the poor, whom McCarthy just ensured will be poorer in Trump’s America.